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Exhibition: Ikuo Hirayama

Touch of silk: Ikuo Hirayama sought solace on the road

Ikuo Hirayama clearly represents how the Japanese like to see and project themselves. His paintings, located in the strong traditions of Nihonga, are unmistakably Japanese, but also look outwards to the rest of the World, and express the spirit of peaceful cooperation and appreciation of our common World heritage that is a popular theme on Japanese TV travel programs. Furthermore, he has been noticed and honored abroad, most notably being made a UNESCO 'Goodwill Ambassador' in 1988.

This must be one reason the major retrospective of his paintings now on display at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo is so well attended. Other reasons include his skill and application as an artist as well as the way the story of his career touches on the themes of redemption, regeneration, and respect for the past central to postwar Japan's sense of itself. This story dramatically opens with Hirayama, born in 1930, witnessing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as a junior high school student mobilized for the war effort.

In his autobiography he described the bombing, which he was lucky to survive, as "the greatest mistake mankind ever made." Undeniably it had an enormous impact on him, but it was his inability to face it directly that shaped much of his artistic career.

After graduating from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku) in 1952, he became a disciple of the Nihonga painter Maeda Seison. During this period, like many other Nihonga painters responding to the threat of social chaos brought by the postwar period and criticism that Nihonga was out of touch with reality, Hirayama chose to paint scenes emphasizing the traditional aspects and order of everyday life. These early works, however, are not included in the exhibition as Hirayama's ultimate style lay in the opposite direction.

In 1959, while suffering illness caused by radiation from the A-bomb, he started to paint scenes based on Buddhist themes, like The Transmission of Buddhism (1959). According to Hirayama's autobiography, the appeal of Buddhist subject matter was that it gave him the freedom to paint symbolically, abstractly, or figuratively as he chose. This allowed him to develop his soft, luminous lyrical style, characterized by muted but glowing colors, unclear lines, and ambiguous forms.

Compared to the great canon of Christian art, Buddhism, in purely artistic terms, lags far behind. This is partly the result of an otherworldliness that puts little value on the world of sense and 'illusion,' and partly the effect of a stoicism that eschews passion and drama. Hirayama's Buddhist works, however, show the mark of the trip he made to Europe in the early 1960s to study Western religious art. Fantasy of Nirvana (1961) and The Jetavana Monastery (1981) have an element of the religious drama more typical of Christian Renaissance paintings.

While Japan was in the throes of rampant modernization and materialism, Hirayama headed in the opposite direction, going back to the roots of Japanese culture and spirituality by tracing it to its sources in China and India, as Okakura Tenshin, one of the founders of the Nihonga movement, had done in the 19th century, when Japan faced the first onslaught of Westernization. This course led Hirayama to look for Japan in the wilds of central Asia, as he developed a fascination for the Silk Road and the 7th-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who spent 17 years traveling between Tang Dynasty China and India in search of Sanskrit sutras.

The works from Hirayama's extensive travels around Asia form the largest part of the exhibition. In the bleakness of the landscapes with their occasional ruins, there is a feeling of Hirayama starting to face up to the cataclysm he witnessed at Hiroshima. Glowing Ruins in Turkestan (1970) shows Bamiyan, the famous Buddhist site destroyed by Genghis Khan, as a scene of desolation. Despite this, it is infused with a glow that seems to recognize and remember the history of the place and its people.

The paintings of the scenes along the Silk Road often have the sublimity and spirituality that comes naturally to the vast and the ancient. This reflects the fact that, in essence, spirituality is how far we can remove ourselves from the here and now. In visiting such vistas and painting these scenes, there is a palpable sense of Hirayama developing the perspective that will allow him to look once again at his own country and the unbearable sight of August 6th, 1945.

In The Glorious Imperial Palace of Fujiwara-kyo (1969) we see the grandeur and simplicity of his Silk Road paintings transposed to the detail of Japan, as the great golden city glows golden among the greenery, a vast living thing rather than an assemblage of the petty hopes, dreams, and irritations that make up any city.

The eyes he developed in central Asia allowed him to finally paint what his art had been slowly moving towards for decades. The Holocaust of Hiroshima (1979) lacks the hysterics and shrill condemnation that can be seen in other artworks dealing with the atrocities of 20th-century warfare, like Picasso's Guernica. In Hirayama's work, the red inferno fills six panels above a suggestion of the Hiroshima skyline. Painted in rich, soft waves of powdered pigment with occasional flecks of gold, it surprisingly becomes a thing of beauty, Riding the flames, Hirayama set Acalanatha, the Buddhust deity whose function is to destroy delusion. As well as representing the integrity of Japanese culture, Hirayama’s painting also show the maturity of post-war Japanese culture.

The Japan Times
27th September, 2007
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